In December, amidst the holiday Zoom parties and anticipation of the end of a rough year, we said "Happy Retirement" to one of the California Naturalist Program's favorite colleagues, environmental educators and mentors, Sandy Derby. To mark this milestone, the CalNat team held a small but meaningful surprise Zoom celebration, attended by some of Sandy's colleagues spanning decades. A quiet, "very 2020" way to celebrate a kind and generous person with a wide-reaching, impactful career.
Sandy came to UC ANR in 2013 as an academic coordinator within the Youth, Families, and Communities Initiative to lead California Project Learning Tree (PLT). PLT is a long-running international environmental education program that provides professional development and curriculum to formal and informal environmental educators alike. PLT uses trees and forests as windows on the world to increase students' understanding of the environment and actions they can take to conserve it. PLT in California consists of a network of educators, scientists, forestry professionals, naturalist, and community stewards that work together to educate and take action to build a strong and sustainable California future.
Happy retirement to our friend Sandy. We miss you already and we wish you endless days of relaxation and fun adventures. You can retire from your day job, but you can't retire from being amazing!
PS: Don't worry, California PLT is now in the capable hands of Cynthia (Cyndi) Chavez, California PLT State Coordinator, based in Los Angeles. You can find her contact info here.
- Author: Cameron Barrows
Biodiversity can be appreciated at multiple scales, from within a species and within populations (at a genetic level), to scales that encompass communities of a variety of species within a habitat or across landscapes of many habitats comprised of interacting communities of organisms. For most of us there is an understanding that higher biodiversity at each of these scales is a positive attribute, but why?
In part the answer is that with greater biodiversity there comes higher levels of redundancy. Communities with lower biodiversity are more fragile than those with higher biodiversity. Imagine a habitat with a single species of plant-eating insect and a single species of an insect-eating lizard. As long as there are just enough insects to sustain a healthy population of lizards, the there is a level of equilibrium. But, if a severe drought, or if a pandemic kills the insect, the lizard population starves. Or if a lizard-eating bird enters the community and reduces the lizard population, the insect population could increase to a level where the plant community is damaged by the insects and their voracious appetites. Either way the community collapses. However, if that community included multiple species of insects, and multiple species of lizards, that redundancy can buffer the community. The role of any one species can be filled by another and the dynamic equilibrium between predators, prey, and vegetation can be sustained.
James Estes studied a marine environment in the Aleutian archipelago that lacked biodiversity. There was a single predator species (sea otters), very few prey species (mostly sea urchins), and a single plant species (giant kelp). Sea otters ate the urchins, and the urchins ate the kelp. As long as the numbers of each were in balance (equilibrium) a dense kelp forest existed that acted as a nursery for a multitude of fish species. But then the local Orcas developed a taste for sea otter, decimating local otter populations. Without otters the urchin population exploded, and they ate all the kelp. There was no redundancy to compensate for the decline in otters; the community collapsed, and the critical fish nursery was lost.
Kevin Crooks studied coastal sage communities near San Diego. Coastal sage is generally a diverse community of plants, insects, lizards, songbirds, small seed and plant eating mammals (rodents), medium-sized omnivorous mammals and a few large predatory mammals (mountain lions, bobcats and coyotes). However, San Diego is a popular place for people to live, and the coastal sage community has been sacrificed for thousands of new homes to meet the needs of a burgeoning population of humans. Soon the coastal sage community was sliced and diced until there were just a few isolated natural habitat fragments left. Kevin's question was whether those habitat islands still retained the biodiversity of what once characterized this community. The first to go were the large predators; the big cats and the coyotes could not maintain populations in such small habitats. Then something curious happened. Without the larger predators around, the medium sized (meso-predators) mammal populations (skunks, raccoons, weasels, and opossums) exploded, and preyed upon the lizards, songbirds and small mammals to the point where the smaller creatures were no longer able to maintain populations. Excluding the top predators resulted in a “trophic cascade” and a loss of biodiversity.
Then there is genetic biodiversity at a species or population level. Darwin worried about this for his own family, even before there was a modern understanding of how genetics works. At that time, and for centuries before, European culture dictated that marriages occur within social classes and typically within a finite group of families with social and economic ties. Royal families throughout Europe intermarried to solidify strategic alliances. The result was an inordinate propensity of hemophilia and insanity. The Darwin and Wedgewood (famous for their fine china) families had similar ties of intermarriage. Darwin married his first cousin Emma Wedgewood. Darwin himself suffered in his middle and older ages from undiagnosed debilitating gastrointestinal distress that was shared by several of his cousins. Emma and Charles had ten children, seven of which survived to adulthood. Just three of his adult children had children of their own. Darwin and Emma had a long happy marriage full of love and respect, but he was guilt-ridden that their lack of genetic diversity had doomed their children, despite the fact that three of his sons were Knighted for their respective advancements in botany, astronomy and engineering. Had the Darwin-Wedgwood intermarriages continued Darwin's guilt would have likely been well-founded and his lineage may have had a short family tree. Perhaps because of his concerns, his children and grandchildren and great-great grandchildren found spouses outside of that close family circle, and there are now some 100 descendants of Charles Darwin. Today one of those great-great grandchildren, Sarah Darwin is a professor and botanist who has studied rare plants in the Galapagos Islands. Another, Christopher Darwin lives in Australia and works on his goal of halting the global mass extinction of species, and a third, Jos Barlow is a noted ecologist. Charles would be pleased.
I saw another example of the effects of genetic diversity on our community science climate change-effects survey yesterday. We were on the Boo Hoff trail, at the driest end of our survey gradient. What struck us all as curious was that of the ocotillo that dotted the hillsides along the trail, a few were leafing out, while most were still dormant. Ocotillo have adapted to dry desert conditions by leafing out after significant rainfall events, and if there is additional sufficient rain, flowering, fruiting and then dropping all their leaves and going dormant until the next rain happens. Under the right sequence of rain events they can repeat this sequence up to three times in a single year. While we did have a brief and scant rain shower about two weeks prior to our survey, most of the ocotillo were unconvinced that it was enough to risk putting precious resources into forming new leaves. But a few were convinced. Those were the risk takers, “betting” that more rain would come, and by getting a head start they would stand a better chance of completing their flowering and fruiting cycle before drought once again pushes all the ocotillo back into dormancy. If they are right, they will produce more seeds and have more potential to continue their genetic lineage. If they are wrong, they will have wasted those precious resources, and if the ensuing drought is particularly long, and hot they may not survive to reproduce again. Genetic diversity producing risk takers and conservative wait and see-ers. In an unpredictable desert climate one or the other, or both will win the survive and reproduce lottery.
Biodiversity at all scales is good.
- Author: Jeannette E. Warnert
UC ANR provides the California home of Project Learning Tree, a national program founded in 1973, during the height of an environmental movement sparked by Rachael Carson's seminal book Silent Spring.
“Everyone began to realize we were having an impact on the environment,” said Sandra Derby, Project Learning Tree state coordinator.
Project Learning Tree (PLT), working with the forestry industry, developed an environmental education program and trained teachers to present it to children in formal and informal educational settings. In California, the program is funded by CAL FIRE.
Another UC ANR program, UC California Naturalist, has collaborated with PLT since 2013.
“There is a lot of shared interest in environmental education, stewardship and service in our two programs,” said Greg Ira, director of UC California Naturalist (CalNat). The CalNat Program recruits and certifies a diverse community of volunteers across California to conduct nature education and interpretation, stewardship, participatory science and environmental program support.
During the coronavirus pandemic, CalNat offered PLT courses to school teachers, volunteer educators and parents online. Completion of the six-hour course over three days resulted in their certification for teaching PLT curricula. The book, aimed for children pre-kindergarten to eighth grade, includes 96 activities, with objectives, assessment opportunities, online teaching connections, and more.
The teacher training course offered by CalNat engages participants with the same activities they will employ when teaching nature appreciation to children.
Learning to appreciate the environment
Even though online training focuses attention on a computer screen, the PLT curriculum gets pupils outside. After writing about and discussing a favorite tree from memory, the participants were asked to go outside to gather a variety of leaves around their homes, classrooms or offices. They observed leaf details, and sorted them by observable characteristics.
The participants reconvened and shared their leaves, divided into categories onscreen: Leaves with rough edges, rounded, oval or palmate; rough, waxy, furry and thick; drooping down or reaching up.
Teachers can use additional activities outlined in the curriculum to help students understand natural variations and biodiversity by engaging with the leaves through observation and art. For example, if the training is taking place in person, the children can trade leaves and then look for the trees where their peers found them. Or they can put a leaf under a plain piece of paper and rub the side of a crayon across it to show the leaf's margin, veins and other details.
There are also activities related to common core skills and abilities. For example, different leaf characteristics can be charted in a Venn diagram, with leaves' common characteristics appearing in the center – such as green, pliable, veins – and singular characteristics in the sections that do not overlap.
Making environmental learning accessible
PLT advances environmental literacy using trees and forests as windows on the world, said Cynthia Chavez, PLT community education specialist in Southern California. The hands-on, engaging activities help “teach students how to think, not what to think” about the environment and their place within it.
“Environmental education could be taught in a daunting way,” Chavez said. “PLT opens the door to kids who are different kinds of learners. This is important for environmental education.”
PLT's comprehensive collection of activities have won the confidence of the education community. Curricula is only offered to teachers who have completed workshops so PLT can share a proven system of implementation.
“PLT training encourages students to care for the environment and be interested in pursuing careers in environmentalism. They learn science is not just in the classroom. They could become a field biologist, if that's the way their brain works,” Chavez said.
Expressing engagement with nature in words
Among the ways to connect with nature outlined in the PLT curriculum are reading, journaling and writing. To close the educator training, participants were given 10 minutes outside to draw inspiration from nature and write a poem – haiku, free verse, rhyming or other style.
Below are samples of poetic nature observations written on the fly by teachers who will inspire California young people to appreciate and help conserve the natural world with the help of PLT.
A droplet of sun
Planted firmly in soil
Linking earth to sky
I have botany blindness, always looking for things that scurry, not sway
But I am asked to acknowledge the tree, and I do
A lone palo verde
There's a chevron lizard on the trunk
A small, yellow verdin in the branches
A line of busy ants along the roots
So I am grateful for this tree, after all
It sways, and upon closer inspection, it scurries as well
A fly comes by
As wind hits my hair
Almost as if
It moved here and there
Then Winston, my dog
Hears someone bark
And a bird starts to chirp
Like a crow or a lark
Green Jobs Personality Quiz
Project Learning Tree offers a one-time free trial intended for adults to test its Green Jobs Quiz. The quiz helps kids learn what green job fits their personalities. You'll receive information about how to administer this quiz to youth you work with.
- Author: Brook Gamble
- Author: Brook Gamble
A new certification course needs a course emblem fit for a beautiful pin and certificate! We're pleased to announce the new design, a lupine (Lupinus sp.). After passionate debate and multiple rounds of votes for different flora and fauna by course instructors, staff, and our Strategic Planning Committee, we finally settled on the lupine, without designating a specific species. Lupine are found throughout California and are a flower familiar to many people. Lupine are in the pea family, they are nitrogen fixers, and they help sequester carbon in the soil. Furthermore, many species are threatened by climate change. By CalFlora estimates, there are 138 species of lupine in California. Check out CalFlora to learn about the astonishing diversity across the state.